Three Journeys to Commencement

Assistant Dean Joe Napolitano's Advisees Share Stories

Bassam Sidiki waves to the crowd en route to receiving his degree at College Commencement on Saturday, May 21.

May 24, 2016 — For the College’s Madison Pachoe, Bassam Sidiki, and Georgina Ryder, a finals-week trip to Cathedral Heights sushi spot Raku marked one of their last celebratory meals as undergraduates. And for College Assistant Dean Joe Napolitano, it was a chance to give a proper sendoff to three students who had inspired and challenged him with their stories, their passion and their intellectual curiosity since arriving on the Hilltop nearly four years before.

Between bites and musings about their last final exams, the three discussed their time at Georgetown — the challenges, accomplishments, and lessons they experienced in the time between setting foot on campus in 2012 and walking across the stage in McDonough this past Saturday.

For philosophy major Georgina Ryder, who spent her childhood between New York and San Francisco, the experience began in earnest with the realization that her parents had, in fact, dropped her off and left campus.

“I was sitting in my dorm with my roommate, who I didn’t know, and it was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is weird,’” she said. “You don’t have time to think about what you’re going to expect.”

Bassam Sidiki was similarly thrown off guard as he began his Hilltop career. Having moved from Pakistan to Michigan as a high school junior, he deferred his Georgetown acceptance for a year as he recovered from cancer. But the move to Washington, he said, was in many ways more difficult than the journey across half the world he had already taken.

He stayed grounded by keeping his passions in mind, completing pre-med coursework and majoring in English.

“There are these paths, and some people expect you to do this one thing,” Sidiki said. “I was able to not fall into the trap of that and reconcile my varied interests — to come up with something original and unique.”

Madison Pachoe prepares to cross the stage at College Commencement on Saturday, May 21.

Biology of global health major Madison Pachoe enjoyed D.C. life from the start, though getting a last-minute invite to Barack Obama’s 2nd Inaugural Ball would probably make anyone see their freshman year in a good light. But it was going abroad to Chile that made her truly appreciate her experience on the Hilltop.

“It gives you perspective on Georgetown,” she said. “You get to take a step back, rejuvenate, learn all about a different culture, and come back your junior or senior year and dedicate yourself to your studies.”

Ryder found an unexpected source of meaning at Georgetown through her job as a resident assistant, where she helped a resident through an extremely difficult time in his life.

“It’s kind of amazing to realize that you can be so important in someone’s life, even if you have no personal connection other than being the RA on his floor,” she said.

Sidiki found an intellectual home at Georgetown in the English department, as he channeled his passion for poetry into a thesis program under the direction of Professor Carolyn Forché.

“Professor Forché has been my poet-mentor,” he said. “To get to work with someone so renowned was really an honor.”

Napolitano had some trouble getting his advisees to speak openly of their accomplishments — they’d much rather thank their professors, advisors, and families at length than acknowledge their own achievements. When he did get the almost-graduates to open up about themselves, they tended to focus on personal growth rather than awards and recognition.

Pachoe, for example, is the winner of the 2016 Biology Medal. She didn’t mention her award, but did bring up her work with Assistant Professor of Biology Shweta Bansal on infectious disease ecology. This research was meaningful and fascinating in its own right, but the most important things she took from her time in the lab were her conversations with Bansal, which helped her become more comfortable with the ideas of graduating and growing up.

“I go in there and talk to her about everything and anything,” Pachoe said. “I now consider when I’m talking to adults that ‘Right, I am an adult.’”

Georgina Ryder receives her diploma from Dean Chester Gillis at College Commencement on Saturday, May 21.

There is no one Georgetown experience, and the paths Napolitano’s advisees took to graduation were different in many ways. But some themes — gratitude to faculty and staff, diversity of intellectual pursuits, dedication to service — popped up again and again in three different stories.

“I’m not Catholic, but the Jesuit values are ingrained in such a personal way — developing cura personalis, caring for who you are as a person and engaging with people who have developed different opinions,” Ryder said.

Interview by Assistant Dean Joe Napolitano. Story by Patrick Curran. Photos by Melissa Nyman.